“The minutes seem like hours,” Mayor Hildegarde Naughton once sang in a performance of the Leonard Bernstein musical West Side Story.
The lyric has acquired a certain pertinence in relation to meetings of the Galway City Council under her stewardship, in which the procedural task of agreeing on the previous month’s minutes is, in fact, taking hours.
There is growing frustration amongst councillors in City Hall at Mayor Naughton’s chairing of meetings and the struggle to enforce procedure and prevent members from embarking on pointless and time-consuming diatribes that are getting in the way of city business.
Just ask representatives from Galway’s arts community. They filed into the gallery at City Hall last Monday in anticipation of the announcement of more than €400,000 in funding for arts projects by City Arts Officer James Harrold.
The announcement of the arts grants was the third item on the agenda but it quickly became apparent that they might as well have asked Santa Claus for the funding rather than James Harrold, because Christmas looked like coming just as quickly.
Mayor Naughton may be musical but one instrument she has not quite mastered is the bell that the Mayor uses to draw contributions to a close. Long-winded councillors were allowed to drone endlessly about items that had been dealt with conclusively at the previous meeting.
The artsy types in the gallery were on the verge of pulling out their ponytails as almost three hours elapsed before the previous meeting’s minutes were agreed and the Mayor finally moved on to the actual business of the meeting.
Traditionally, when interest groups are present in the council chamber, the Mayor would propose to deal with the item on the agenda relating to them first so that they could be spared having to sit through an entire council meeting - which would arguably constitute torture under the terms of the Geneva Convention.
Yet Mayor Naughton forced her kindred spirits in the arts community to endure the unregulated sniping and grandstanding of long-winded councillors as they waited for news of their subsidies in the gallery. First she was cruelly and falsely labelled a bigot for refusing David Norris the opportunity to address the Council. Now it seems she has it in for the thespians as well by making them sit through the endless drone of the meeting.
Meanwhile, Councillor Pádraig Conneely was availing of the free-for-all speaking time to twist the knife in old rival, Labour councillor Billy Cameron, who failed to receive an invitation for the inauguration of Michael D Higgins last week despite campaigning night and day for the new President over the past few months.
Still smarting from that snub, the last thing Cllr Cameron needed was a jibe from another pain in the Áras. Cllr Conneely though revelled in pointing out the fact that the chameleonic Niall McNelis – who has been involved in more parties than Paris Hilton – made Michael D’s invitation list, while Labour stalwart Cameron was left outside with his face pressed to the glass.
Conneely attributed McNelis’ political savvy in sourcing an invitation for the big occasion to his “years of training in Fine Gael” prior to joining the Labour Party to run in the Local Elections in 2009.
Another hour had passed at the meeting and the only item dealt with on the agenda was the approval of the Local Government Audit Report for 2010. Even the highly trained thespians in the gallery could not act as though they were even vaguely interested.
A number of councillors, too, were growing visibly weary at the chaotic management of the meeting and magma seemed to be rising in an agitated Cllr Donal Lyons, who was gasping and aglow as his colleagues were allowed to speak at inordinate length on topics of little consequence.
At the rate with which the council was progressing through items on the agenda, it would be no surprise if Cllr Lyons wasn’t the only man in the chamber with a red face and a white beard by the time the Mayor arrived at Any Other Business.
More than four hours into the meeting, the council had agreed a second item on the agenda: the development of a 200-metre bus and cycle lane in Rahoon. The representatives were on the verge of giving up and many had their coats on and were waiting by the door.
Finally, some time after eight o’clock, the meeting progressed to the third item on the agenda: the local authority arts funding. Weary and despondent councillors voted to approve the dispersal of more than €400,000 of council money without debate.
Perhaps the effect of the slow progress and chaotic management of council meetings is best illustrated, not by what little the council did address on the night, but by the important business that it could not address due to time constraints.
While almost three hours was devoted to reviewing the minutes of last month’s meeting, there was no time remaining for the elected members to consider an upgrade of a water scheme in Doughiska or a quarterly report on housing at a time when more than 4,000 people are on a waiting list for social accommodation in Galway.
Nor was there any time to get to the item on the agenda when the council could have addressed matters relating to transport and infrastructure at a time when escalating traffic congestion has brought the city to a complete standstill. It is not known whether the signalisation of roundabouts can go ahead.
Like former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, the Mayor’s singing might prove popular at parties but, unless she can apply that harmony to the way in which she chairs meetings, the pantomime over which she currently presides could end up costing the city dearly.